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How to avoid exercise injuries

Regular exercise is good for your body and safe for most everyone. However, with any type of activity, there is a chance you can get hurt. Exercise injuries can range from strains and sprains to back pain.

With a little planning, you can prevent injury and stay safe during exercise.

What Causes Exercise Injuries?

Some of the most common causes of exercise injuries include:

  • Exercising before your body has warmed up
  • Repeating the same motion over and over again
  • Not having proper form for your exercise
  • Not resting in between workouts
  • Pushing your body too hard or too quickly
  • Doing an exercise that is too strenuous for your level of fitness
  • Not using proper equipment

Warm Up and Cool Down

Warming up before exercise gets your blood flowing, warms up your muscles, and helps you avoid injury. The easiest way to warm up is to exercise slowly for the first few minutes, then pick up the pace. For example, before running, walk briskly for 5 to 10 minutes.

You should also cool down after exercise to bring your heart rate and body temperature back to normal. Cool down by ending your routine at a slower pace for the last 5 to 10 minutes.

To Stretch or Not to Stretch

To stay flexible, you should stretch at least 2 times a week. But it is unclear whether stretching really helps reduce injury.

You can stretch either after you have warmed up or after you exercise.

  • DO NOT stretch cold muscles.
  • Hold stretches for no longer than 15 to 30 seconds.
  • DO NOT bounce.

Choose Your Exercise Wisely

If you have not been active, or have a health condition, talk with your health care provider to make sure you are healthy enough for exercise. Ask what types of exercise might be best for you.

If you are new to exercise, you may want to start with low-intensity options such as:

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Riding a stationary bike
  • Golf

These types of exercise are less likely to cause injury than higher-impact activities like running or aerobics. Contact sports like soccer or basketball are also more likely to cause injury.

Use the Right Equipment

Using safety equipment can greatly reduce your risk of injury.

Safety equipment for your sport may include:

  • Footwear
  • Helmets
  • Mouth guards
  • Goggles
  • Shin guards or other protective guards
  • Kneepads

Be sure you use the right type of equipment for your sport. For example, DO NOT play tennis in running shoes. Wear a ski helmet, not a bike helmet, when downhill skiing.

Make sure your exercise equipment:

  • Fits you properly
  • Is the right design for your sport or activity
  • Is in good working condition
  • Is used correctly and consistently

Learn Good Form

If you are new to an exercise or sport, consider taking lessons to learn the basics. Learning the right way to do an exercise or sport can help prevent injury. Look for lessons in your community or through sports or outdoors organizations. You can also consider hiring a personal trainer.

Cross Train

To help prevent overuse injuries, vary your workouts. For example, instead of running 3 days a week, cycle 1 day and run 2. You will use a different set of muscles, and still get a good workout.

Listen to Your Body

Forget the old saying "no pain, no gain." Of course, to build strength and stamina, you will need to push your body. The key is to push slowly and gradually. You can expect sore muscles after your workout. But you should never feel pain when exercising. If you feel pain, stop right away.

Being tired all the time can also be a sign that you may be overdoing it. In general, avoid increasing these 3 things all at the same time:

  • Number of days you exercise
  • Length of time you exercise
  • How hard you work out

If you do have an injury, you can try to treat strains and sprains at home.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your provider for any muscle or joint pain that does not go away after self-care.

Go to the hospital right away or call 911 if:

  • You have chest pain during or after exercise.
  • You think you have a broken bone.
  • The joint appears out of position.
  • You have a serious injury or severe pain or bleeding.
  • You hear a popping sound and have immediate problems using the joint.

References

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Safe Exercise. Updated January 2012. orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00418. Accessed October 13, 2016.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sports Injury Prevention for Baby Boomers. Updated August 2011. orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00178. Accessed October 13, 2016.

Carfagno DG, Hendrix JC. Overtraining syndrome in the athlete: current clinical practice. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2014;13(1):45-51. PMID: 24412891 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24412891.

Rothmier JD, Harmon KG, O'Kane JW. Sports medicine. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 29.

Review Date 7/22/2016

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.